Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Oakland's tainted geography

YOU CAN LIVE A RICH LIFE in Oakland and never be directly affected by its history or its troubles. Even if the violence might occasionally seep into your consciousness, depending on where you live or work, your image of the city can be dominated by its hills, by the tall redwoods in its parks, the innovative cafes of Piedmont Avenue, or the relatively new gleam and bustle of Uptown on a Friday night. Inevitably, at its restaurants, you will encounter a racially mixed crowd of Oaklanders. Thirty-nine percent white, 31 percent black and 25 percent Latino, Oakland is nothing if not integrated in its public places and at public events. But it remains segregated in its neighborhoods, whose contrasting lifestyles create a tainted geography that informs and influences life here.

From the sprawling flatlands where the preponderance of violent crime occurs, you can look up and see the trees and big houses of the hills, but not the steep roads that wind and swirl through pines and stands of invasive eucalyptus. Many flatlanders probably can’t imagine the dizzying journey up.

Grand and abandoned in Oakland. Pic: JO'B.

From the ridges and high windows of the hills you can see the flatlands. It’s easy to comprehend their layout, the straight avenues, the diagonal byways, the waters of rambling Lake Merritt, the Alameda County Coliseum blight and the runways of the airport. But you never have to go in there if you don’t want to. Freeways tower over the flatlands and carry you swiftly past, or haltingly, depending on the time of day, to San Francisco, to Berkeley, to white suburbs to the east and north, or south to San Jose. Today the ground level roadways Oaklanders used to take, like MacArthur Boulevard, demarcate borders between two supposed forbidden zones, the hills off limits to flatlanders, the flats alien to hill dwellers.

Before she became mayor, Jean Quan represented a City Council district that reflects Oakland’s peculiar geography. Not only did it flow into some of the bloodiest streets on the edge of flat East Oakland, but it also included the most highly populated part of the white, upper-middle-class Oakland hills, known as Montclair. Quan knows Montclair’s people and its attitudes well. She knows there is very little social connection between the two Oaklands, “a tale of two cities,” she calls it.

“Some people in Montclair,” she tells me, “haven’t been below MacArthur Boulevard in twenty years.”

No doubt they are afraid to go too deep into East Oakland. What happened to Caheri Gutierrez happens in East Oakland regularly: bystanders in the crossfire are hit every year. In 2011, three of those East Oakland bystanders were very young children. All three died. When that happens, when a homicide victim is under the age of 17, the reaction of the city tends to be louder and more intense than if the victim is in the wheelhouse of urban murder: an African-American male age 18 to 39. When the victim is a child, more of the general population pays attention to the event, for a longer time. A realization dawns that the city is not only killing children but is giving birth to men who will kill children. For a time, the whole city cares about the violence that is mostly isolated in its eastern and western flatlands.

Still, ask how a shooting or a homicide in the flatlands affects a person in the hills and you will be met with a pause and then usually a rather abstract response: People in the hills are “progressive,”   they care about the problems of the flats. Or an economic response: The city’s violent reputation suppresses property values. Or a political response: People in the hills voted solidly in favor of a parcel tax to fund citywide violence prevention. But the effect remains impersonal, never real or raw and dirty like in the flatlands.
Some hills, Oakland. Pic: JO'B.
One way a killing elsewhere affects Oaklanders who live outside the most violent parts of the city is in the fear that circumscribes your world. You exit a popular restaurant near Lake Merritt, but feel afraid to stroll the shore because a week ago there were four shootings nearby. You live on the edge of the forest, but never venture east. Neighborhood merchant associations hire private security firms to patrol their streets, parents bar their children from watching the news, Montclair considers the possibility of seceding from Oakland.

Increasingly, fear is the one thing the two sides of Oakland do have in common. As the size of the police force has fallen, there have been fewer arrests, slower response times to emergency calls, and a decreased police presence all over the city. Crime is up, and not just in the usual places, but in the hills as well. If violent crime keeps mostly to The Deep and to the western neighborhoods near the port, burglaries and robberies have become common even in the hills.

Libby Schaaf grew up in Montclair and now represents it on the City Council. She says the scary part is not necessarily the increase in crime in the hills, but the brazen nature of it — doors are kicked in, shots fired. She says the proliferation of online bulletin boards that spread word of each crime soon after it happens has made people more aware of the dangers than ever before, and this awareness has led to greater fear.

“I’ve lived in this city my whole life,” says Schaaf, “and I have never until this last year heard of people actually moving out of the city because of their fear of crime, and this year I have heard several instances of it.”

An episode from her childhood gives a sense of how sweet life can be in Oakland, and yet how enduring the city’s troubles have proven. Schaaf says she was blissfully ignorant of any problems in Oakland, until as a young girl she went to Washington, D.C., for a national Girl Scout conference. When she said she was from Oakland, someone asked if she was scared to live there. That was thirty years ago.

“I just had no idea what they meant, I grew up in the Montclair hills, I grew up on the edge of the forest, and the only thing I could think of that was negative about where I lived was the deer sometimes ate my mother’s flowers in her garden.”

She remembers a book about Oakland that her parents had around the house. She loved the title, Oakland’s Not for Burning, and wholeheartedly agreed with its sentiment, but she'd never read the book.

The title Oakland’s Not for Burning is a kind of paternalist admonishment of the city’s minority population. The book is a 40-year-old apologist memoir of white fear and a failed federal attempt to assuage the stirring masses in Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods. In the mid-1960s, in the aftermath of the Watts riots, there was concern that Oakland, a city of increasingly frustrated, destitute and displaced minorities, would be next to erupt. Something needed to be done for these people if they were to be kept calm and peaceful. Oakland’s Not for Burning was written by the man the government sent to Oakland to try to coordinate its effort to head off any violence. Those efforts were centered on a grant for the city’s port and job training to prepare minorities for the new jobs it would create. It was a valiant effort in noblesse oblige, doomed to failure by politics, union racism and bureaucracy. A few hundred jobs were created, very few at the port, which used much of the federal grant money to further automate and containerize, thus eliminating jobs.

While poor neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. and Detroit burned, Oakland never erupted. But things were heating up. The Black Panthers were born. In another decade, the drug kingpin Felix Mitchel would rise to exploit the crack epidemic. The Black Muslims appeared and for a time they thrived. The bitterness and cynicism at the heart of all three enterprises would serve to further separate white from black, flatland from hills. Even as the city’s political structure evolved from conservative to liberal, its authoritarian police force became more hated and distrusted in the minority communities. Decades later, in crime-ridden, violence-ridden parts of Oakland, the police still are seen as failures, at best.

“Particularly in the African-American community,” says Oakland Police Captain Paul Figueroa, “there’s this sense that police come in, they stop guys, they don’t find anything, and the dealers are still out there. So there’s this real sense of ineffectiveness.”

The rise in crime across neighborhoods, the shortage of police and the need to patrol the authentically violent areas of the city continue to pit the hills against the flatlands in a fight for services. Worse than that, says Figueroa, is a perception he’s encountered in the hills that it is people from the flatlands who are coming up there to rob and terrorize them.

Councilwoman Schaaf responds to their fears with neighborhood meetings about crime. They are well attended.

“I held a town hall about crime in Montclair,” says Schaaf. “I thought I had chosen a large enough venue to hold it in, a school auditorium. Three-hundred and fifty people showed up, they stood for two hours, they sat on the floor, they crowded in the doorways, literally there was no more space that people could be squeezed into, that is how upset people are about crime in this city.”

She invites to the meetings salesmen of home video surveillance systems to give presentations. You can monitor your property live, receive alerts when the system detects movement. You can more easily identify intruders. That’s one way to react.

Figueroa understands the trauma of being robbed or having your house broken into, but he knows that what’s happening in the flatlands is worse.

“The disastrous effects of violence and losing someone to a homicide are just severe, and severe for a long time. Being burglarized, although super, super upsetting, after some of the other things I’ve seen, I’m able to maybe keep it in perspective a little more.”

Like Schaaf, Figueroa grew up in Oakland thirty years ago. Only he grew up in East Oakland, near High Street, then as now a magnet for mayhem and violence.

“It hasn’t changed that much,” says Figueroa, “the epidemic of speeding cars continues, the loud music, in that area of High Street there’s a lot of narcotics.”

The shooting, the killing, the short- and long-term aftermath of each act of violence, are part of what shaped Figueroa, of what led to him becoming a cop. When Figueroa was 10, a beloved neighbor, father of his best friend, was shot and killed while walking his dog. Figueroa says the killing cast a pall over a once relatively normal, happy, active block, a pall that took years to lift. As a cop now, he sees it every day, the lasting and widespread effect of each individual killing or shooting. It becomes the muck Oaklanders must push through every day, the encoded trauma.

“There was this funk, this depression,” says Figueroa, “that just set over the neighborhood for a long time, and I’ve seen that in my career over and over again, and often times I try to describe it to people, because I’ve lived it. And what I’ve seen in my experience, is that you get homicide-homicide-homicide-violent-act, even burglaries can certainly be as traumatic for somebody, and so you get that trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma, and the funk, that we were eventually able to pull out of, it’s difficult when you stack trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma.” 

- from Until You Bleed: The Caheri Gutierrez Story
          an Amazon Kindle Single available for .99
          Also available as an audiobook at iTunes and

No comments: